How much does the Major League Soccer SuperDraft even matter anymore?
To take the league’s tacit assessment of the situation, not nearly as much as it used to. The dispersal of the nation’s top unattached amateur players is no longer televised, in fact it’s not even a public event. The college draft used to be a January ESPN-broadcast jamboree that coincided with the annual United Soccer Coaches convention in Philadelphia as club staffs gathered to kick off the North American soccer calendar. After several years of downscaled production accelerated by the covid pandemic, this year the draft will be a December webcam call a few days before Christmas.
MLS has done the reverse MLB, with its draft now perceived as so detached from immediate results that the league conducts it over Zoom. With clubs increasingly enmeshed in the global transfer market and having spent the last two decades building out their own youth development infrastructures, the SuperDraft (along with the now-annual Expansion Draft and free agency-depressed Re-Entry Draft) is now one of the least reliable sources of building block talent in MLS. Though there have been success stories in recent years where players have found the right position at the right time for the right club, the draft’s later rounds are now riddled with teams passing on making any selections at all, and many selections go unsigned.
One could of course use this context to drone on and on about What This Means For The League. But luckily for you and the rest of the readers, this blog is expected to limit its scope to the New York Red Bulls, a club that’s had a fairly interesting relationship with the draft in recent years. Though New York has conspicuously aligned itself over the last decade with the identity of Red Bull’s wider soccer structure that values young talent and efficient recruitment from the furthest crevasses of the transfer market, the club’s state of suspended transition in recent years has left gaps in squad construction that SuperDraft picks have filled with some muted success.
Especially in Red Bull’s aggressive development practices, the players in their early 20s who make up the majority of SuperDraft fodder are somewhat behind soccer’s professional learning curve. In the modern age, players are often discarded if they have not seen professional minutes before drinking age. In the Hans Backe and Erik Soler era of the early 2010s, the Red Bulls were one of the first MLS teams to experience a management regime that was confused by the premise of the SuperDraft.
But in recent years the draft has appeared to be firmly within the domain of sporting director Denis Hamlett, who looks to be in one of the more powerful ebbs of his long-fluctuating status at the club ever since the departure of head of sport Kevin Thelwell last winter. Even before Thelwell’s exit last offseason, the Englishman could be seen effectively handing the reins of the club’s drafting process via webchat to the former Chicago Fire manager Hamlett, whose long career in the North American pro game gives him a unique eye for the nooks and crannies of the draft pool.
Since Hamlett moved from Jesse Marsch’s coaching staff to assume his front office role in 2017, his work in the draft has found most success at striker and center back, where the Red Bulls have found players with skillsets that require less polishing to be effective in the club’s heralded press-and-launch scheme. These positions — the ones that tend to rely the most on physical prowess and a somewhat uncoachable sixth sense for the chaos of the final third — are the positions most prone for players to bloom late and defy Red Bull’s ever-present tendency to blood the youngest player possible.
In Hamlett’s first draft at the helm in 2018, the club hit a relative jackpot with two different strikers — Brian White and Tom Barlow — who forged careers at MLS level. White, a New Jersey native who had spent a college summer with the Red Bulls’ short season U-23 operation, was the club’s leading scorer by the next year. But while White’s lack of size and speed eventually saw him fall behind the curve as new manager Gerhard Struber installed an orthodox Red Bull-style pressing system, target man Barlow has stuck around through the first team’s extensive overhaul in recent years. The former Wisconsin Badger’s physical gifts have seen him turned into the sort of bottom-of-roster tactical weapon valuable in both Red Bull’s tactics and the MLS salary cap.
Meanwhile on the other end of the field, a pair of draft-sourced brothers from Long Island have not only become Red Bulls regulars, but provide an interesting case study for the rising level of the ordinary American player. Sean Nealis, a 6’4” bull in the china shop who did not play for a national-level academy in his youth, was a practical unknown when New York selected him from Hofstra in the third round in 2019. While not selected by the Red Bulls, his younger brother Dylan Nealis has performed an increasingly rare feat of finding minutes with three different MLS clubs since his first round selection in 2020, with the utility defender having been reunited with his brother after stints with Inter Miami and Nashville and playing a regular role in New York’s 4th place conference finish in 2022.
Despite their background as central casting all-American jocks, the Nealis brothers are far from the types of clumsy piano carriers that such players became in the American game’s past. Both have emerged as technically sound pros who play within their limits and have adapted their fundamental skills to a highly-complex tactical system. They represent the paradoxical spot of the bell curve that the SuperDraft currently finds itself on. While there are fewer and fewer opportunities for college veterans to break into the professional game, the ones that make it through the thickening firewall are of a higher quality than generations past. Even Matthew Nocita, the 6’8” Naval Academy cadet who is perhaps the most outlandish physical outlier selected by the Red Bulls in the draft thus far, has been remarked upon for his smooth ball work in his debut USL appearances late last season.
The emergence of this group of cultured domestic defenders provides an interesting symmetry with Tim Ream, perhaps the most successful Red Bulls SuperDraft pick of all time, who recently played every minute for the United States at the World Cup to cap a career that has been as successful as it was improbable. When Ream was selected in 2010, he was one of the only players at the league’s college player combine that impressed the Scandinavian regime of Backe and Soler, the type of slick-passing center back that most MLS teams of the day didn’t have the tactical and technical savvy to notice or utilize. But while Ream immediately slotted into the New York starting lineup before his rocketing trajectory took him to the Premier League within two years, players of similar profiles like the Nealis brothers are now perceived as somewhat old hat heading into 2023.
Indeed the baseline objective in the modern SuperDraft is not finding a building block starter who might even earn an eventual transfer fee like Ream, but rather a player who becomes a useful glue piece in a league where intense travel and awkward scheduling often leaves managers in need of reliable replacement-level talent. But even if that type of player is rarely appreciated in reactive fan discourse — where Barlow and the Nealis brothers are frequent lightning rods — Costa Rican-born MLS lifers and parachuting European executives alike can understand their importance to building a contemporary MLS squad.
So anyway…who are the Red Bulls going to pick? Given the obscure backgrounds of many of the team’s recent draft successes, are such selections even worth predicting? The league itself didn’t even get around to publishing its list of blue chip salary cap-exempt Generation Adidas players until Monday morning, two days before the big Zoom conference that will determine their professional future.
But in the meantime, OaM resident college soccer gadfly Eric Friedlander offers a few names worth remembering on Wednesday. Mo Williams, a Notre Dame defender originally from West Orange, not only played a season in the now defunct Red Bulls U-23 program but trialed for the Red Bulls II setup last year, and is a name to watch for in the late rounds. Another defender Friedlander sees as a fit for the Red Bull tactical system is Moise Bombito, a 6’3” Canadian from the University of New Hampshire. Given the club’s relationship with Barcelona Arizona academy ever since the Red Bulls recruited one of their coaches Sean McCafferty to be their academy chief, Friedlander also thinks Barca AZ alum Ilijah Paul is worth looking out for as the forward enters the draft from the University of Washington.